Marketing gurus and economic development wonks have been spinning out terms like “clusters” and “regionalism” and “corridors” for more than two decades. Call it whatever you want, each buzzword essentially has the same meaning: a group of individual somethings [companies or industries, cities or parishes] joining forces to leverage resources to achieve a greater good.
Intellectually it makes perfect sense: A diverse group coming together to build upon strengths, collaborate on problems and seek out new opportunities invariably produces far better and more innovative results than simply going it alone. Collaboration, scores of studies indicate, with rare exceptions, leads to more innovative, diverse and efficient results for the collective whole. The trick, of course, is that everyone must give up a little something for the greater good. Doing so, in theory, makes life better for everyone.
When it comes to geography there’s an even more practical positive: Banding together creates greater population numbers, which leads to greater federal dollars.
This, of course, is one of the reasons why metropolitan forms of government get created. Not only does this all-for-one arrangement lead to more federal cash, but expenses—in theory—are reduced due to the efficiency that comes when a single government agency [police, fire, schools, public works, parks and libraries] services an entire parish, rather than each city having to create its own entity to perform the same service. Remarkably, East Baton Rouge was an early adopter of metropolitan government, making the switch in 1949.
Unfortunately, that was the last time Baton Rouge was on the forefront of this issue. Even more unfortunate is that ever since—and with increasing frequency—we’ve been retreating from the greater good concept and racing headlong toward parochial self-interest.
Despite this surging go-it-alone mentality, many of these same people cling to the notion of the greater good—but only when it’s singularly beneficial to them. In many respects, it’s an inner conflict between our Jeffersonian desires and Hamiltonian wants.
The disappointing result is we’ve become a parish of segregation. We’ve always been that way when it comes to race, but now our segregation knows no bounds. We are a parish of social subsets, unified only in the belief that our respective subset’s wants and desires should trump every other subset’s wants and desires.
This is why much of black Baton Rouge lives north of Government Street, while much of white Baton Rouge lives to the south of our de facto racial border. It’s why the wealthy and upper-middle class love gated communities, to keep from having to cohabitate with the poor and lower-middle class. It’s why we demand to live in one section of town, work in another and play on yet another distinct piece of turf. It’s why we eschew a coordinated street grid. And it’s why parishwide bond issues regularly get defeated.
It’s why whites in south Baton Rouge fled public schools for the safety of private campuses while whites in Central and Zachary fled to create their own public school districts. It’s why Central, a city born out of self-interest, would like to dump at-large council representation in favor of single-member, parochial districts. It’s why so little bold ever gets done by Baton Rouge’s Metro Council, where practically every meaningful vote falls along racial lines.
It’s why big industry successfully lobbies to be exempted from local special taxing districts, enabling multibillion-dollar companies to avoid taxes for things like police and fire protection and mass transportation. Their spokespeople argue these companies shouldn’t have to pay for government services they don’t require—largely because they provide such services for themselves. These spokespeople are also quick to point to the philanthropic gifts industry donates to government entities and nonprofits, but ask them to compare that total to the total number of tax exemptions and the response is a blank stare.
Then again, why should industry be any different from the rest of us?
In the end, living in blissful isolation is something that unites us all.